I was in Bloomsburg that afternoon to drop in on Harold. Just an impulse.
I’d glanced up from my work earlier in the day and noticed his cubicle was empty again. The sight got me counting—he’d been absent since Tuesday, four days in a row.
I got no answer when I called. He didn’t live far from the office, so I decided to see how he was getting on once my shift was through. I’d been to his house several times before, a thin ranch style set back from the road and hidden in tree shade. He and his wife had hosted small Christmas parties annually for about seven years, but that was some time ago.
I’d never seen their home in the summer before. A raised garden hemmed the driveway on one side. Whatever flowers they’d planted were drowning in leafy weeds and tall grasses. Several conifers speared up from the front lawn, little skirts of nettles on the ground directly beneath.
As I pulled up I noticed only one car in the driveway: Tara’s gray Acura.
On my way to the front door, I spotted her sitting on a cast iron bench beneath one of the trees, so still I thought she might be sleeping. I let my foot crush a dry pinecone before I got close enough to startle her.
She turned and offered a rather weary grin. “Andrew.”
Something was wrong—I could see that right off. A peculiar fatigue showed around the edges of her appearance, prominent without dominating. Pink eyes, hair fixed but frayed, as if she’d been driving with the windows down, details of that sort.
She and Harold had been married over twenty years. I’d known them for the last twelve of those and always thought they were a good match. Never a harsh word passed between them while in my company. Harold was the one people gravitated to at socials, a charming air of emeritus about him, but Tara was one of the great listeners, so rare these days. Always willing to spare an ear and a smile.
This time her smile seemed to exact more from her, though. An exertion.
I asked if everything was all right, maybe sounding more concerned than I intended.
Tara beamed in response. “Yes, dear, everything’s fine. How have you been?”
“Can’t complain,” I said. “No more than usual, anyway. Is Harold around?”
She laughed, then shook her head decisively. “No, he’s gone. He left.”
A single nod. “Afraid so.”
“Well, will he be back soon?”
Another petite laugh.
I didn’t know what to say next.
Tara glanced down and crossed her ankles. “Tuesday night. He caught a plane up to Spokane. Not sure when he’s coming back.”
“I hope everything’s okay,” I said.
She met my eyes again. For whatever reason the gesture made me want to elaborate. “I thought maybe he was sick or something, you know. He’s missed several days—that’s why I came by. To make sure nothing’s the matter.”
The pause that followed was enough to convince me. Something had happened.
They didn’t have any children that I knew of, but Harold kept family photos pinned to his boards, same as the rest of us. Most were of Tara and assorted relatives. It was difficult to imagine the two of them disagreeing, much less arguing.
Then the inevitable word sprang to mind: affair.
Harold with a mistress. Some younger woman maybe, the proverbial secretary at the office passionately skinning one of those hideous turtlenecks off him, hooking his glasses with the collar by accident, or smoothing post-coital sweat off his considerable eyebrows with her thumb.
This was even harder to imagine. And nauseating.
“Tara,” I said. Her attention had drifted.
“Nothing’s the matter,” she said reassuringly. “His sister’s getting a divorce. In Spokane. He wanted to be there, or she wanted him. It developed quickly—I don’t remember. He hasn’t called.”
“Do you know if his plane made it safely?”
She waved the concern away. “Oh, yes. I meant since he arrived. After landing he hasn’t called.”
“You had me worried,” I said. “I didn’t know he had a sister.”
Tara nodded, beaming again. “Kimberly. Three years older if I’m not mistaken.”
It struck me then what had put me off when I first walked up: Tara was wearing makeup.
Not a profound observation, except that I’d never seen her with any on.
Mascara definitely, dry and peppering down on her cheeks. Maybe blush—hard to tell with it being so warm out.
The lipstick, though. That’s what did it. A shade probably not too far from her true color, but it wasn’t applied well. On her bottom lip especially, near the left corner, the line was twice as low. It gave that side of her mouth a distended, drooping look.
“People have always said how nice Kim is, but we’ve never been very close,” she explained, then added meditatively, “Not the first time for me I guess.”
“What do you mean?”
She hesitated. “It seems I’m too aloof for my own good sometimes.”
“That’s not true.”
“Yes it is,” she said. “If we’re having this conversation, I see no reason to do so on tiptoe. I’ve, uh…I’ve always known that I’m not well liked, Andrew, even if I don’t always understand why. But life doesn’t always supply us with reasons does it?”
“I’m sorry, Tara. I’m not sure where this is coming from.”
“Oh, don’t you?”
Her tone was turning bitter.
“Well, that’s not how I see you anyway,” I said. “I’ve always thought you were wonderful.”
It just came out—I don’t know why.
Tara wasn’t unlikable, but she was aloof, every time I encountered her apart from that day. But now she stared at me with such unexpected sincerity and gratitude that I suddenly felt a little disarmed.
“You mean that?”
I said of course I did.
Tara leaned forward at the waist, uncrossed her feet, took my hand. “Can you be honest then?” she asked. “About something else, something important to me?”
“I can try,” I said.
“You know me well enough, I think.” Her grip tightened. “What do you think of me? As a w-woman?”
Her eyes were starting to quiver like shallow water over stone.
I crouched a bit so we could be level. “Do you want to tell me what happened?”
The question sobered her almost instantly. She let go of my hand and rose.
I stood up as well. “Maybe I can help. I know something’s wrong.”
“Don’t pay attention to me, Andrew,” she said.
“I don’t mean to offend.”
Her paper smile returned. “No. I suppose I’m just feeling a bit lonely with Harold out of the house.”
The exchange was feeling more and more like rifling through someone’s drawer, but I offered to help again.
Tara seemed ready with a polite refusal, but then she caught herself. “Where do you live? If you don’t mind telling me that is.”
“I’m at Racine Place. It’s a housing community off of Webster.”
“Is that anywhere near Findley?”
I nodded. “It’s on the way, maybe a little off to the west.”
She bit her lower lip, considering this. I let the time pass quietly.
“Do you think you could spare a few minutes to take something to a friend of mine there? Only if it’s on your way.”
“How far into Findley?” I asked. It didn’t really matter, but I wanted to stall my answer.
She said she wasn’t sure. Probably not very far off my regular course.
I said yes and she was off, hurrying toward the house. She was hardly gone long enough for me to sigh, and when she returned it was clear that she’d shed tears again, even if only a few.
A small gift box passed between us, white with a sky blue ribbon tied in a bow across the top.
There was a slight heft to it. Tara warned me not to jostle it around too much. “Here’s the address in Findley. She’ll be home by now. I’m not leaving here and I don’t trust the post with it.”
I could tell we were done with the previous conversation, so I asked if the box was a belated birthday gift.
“Nothing as formal as that,” she said. “It’s something she’s borrowed from me so often I figure she may as well have it.”
The name on the paper she gave me was Gina Massey.
I recognized the handwriting as Harold’s.
“Bet you regret coming here today, huh?” she asked.
“Not at all. Like I said, if I can help—”
Tara pulled me close and kissed me, off center a little but firm and with my mouth still open. All I could think about was that smudge of lipstick, soggy and mashed against my lower teeth.
When we parted, she simply thanked me and reclaimed her place on the bench.
It felt like a dismissal, so I left.
It was no trouble finding Gina Massey’s address; I was familiar with many of the main roads that bordered hers.
Until the kiss, I’d actually been nurturing a seed of anger against Harold for any number of wrongs he might’ve done to put Tara in that state. But as I polished my mouth inside and out with my shirt collar, a more practical thought arrived: why in the hell was I participating?
I merged onto the off-ramp more sharply than I meant to, just wanting the errand done. The gift box slid freely on the passenger seat.
Her house was in a cluster of similar two-story homes. There was barely enough room to file a sheet of paper between them. Each had its own patch of lawn surrounded by a squat chain-link fence. I approached quickly, but stood at the gate a long time—it looked like the type of place where a dog might be kept off its chain.
Eventually, a young woman opened the front door and called out. “Hello?”
“Uh, hi. Is this…can you tell me if Gina Massey lives here?”
Ten seconds in and already too awkward to bear. “A friend asked me to bring this to you,” I said. “I mean if you’re Gina.”
In a blur of movement, her door swung wide and she came bounding down the front stoop. Thirty at most, I thought. Her hair was sleek and styled, which seemed out of place with the red sweat pants and t-shirt. I held the gift box out over the fence.
She cradled the parcel, all wide eyes and expectation. I even thought I detected relief in her voice when she thanked me.
“It’s no trouble,” I said. “Listen, I don’t want to be presumptuous, but do you know what’s been going on there?”
“I’m sorry, but who are you again?” she asked, still grinning. Then—
“Oh, you…you work at SynTech?”
When she motioned toward my chest, I reached up and laughed: I still had my nametag pinned on. “About sixteen years now, yeah. I stopped by today and everything just seemed off kilter.”
“Their place. I wanted to check on Harold. He hasn’t been to work lately and while I was there Tara asked me to bring this to you.”
The woman flinched back several steps. “His wife?”
The question hung between us for a moment. The way her voice changed, like hearing ice crack underfoot.
“Yeah. Harold jumped ship to Spokane, so I talked to Tara for a bit. I don’t mean to light the fuse on any gossip, but something’s definitely happened recently. She was behaving so strange—that’s why I asked if you knew.”
The woman’s face reddened, either from fear of hatred, I couldn’t tell which. “I haven’t heard from him,” she cried. “He visits almost every day.”
“I’m sorry. She…she said you were friends—”
“I thought he sent you to…” She shook the box, fiercely. “What the hell is this?”
I put my hands up, surrendering. “Calm down, okay? I have no idea—Tara said she finally decided to let you keep it. That’s all I know.”
Gina Massey paused, everything falling out of her expression.
She pulled the blue ribbon, gently, until the bow gave way. Then lifted the lid.
What came out of her was less a scream than a prolonged retch. The young woman half ran, half crawled back into her house so abruptly that it startled me.
The box toppled over when she dropped it, the contents tumbling out onto the sidewalk. It seemed to lounge there in the late afternoon sun: a severed member, desiccated and idiotically limp.
My stomach heaved and coiled.
I leaned against the gate.
Tara had even wrapped it in pink tissue paper.